Sun 4 Oct 2015
My uncle and my older cousin called it the sidehill toggler, an infamous creature from Utah legend. It was fearsome, they said, hanging out in the high mountains, and if you encountered one you had no chance of outrunning it because it was fearsome fast. And carnivorous. Well, there was maybe one way to evade it: run in the opposite direction from the way it faced. It might be a little tricky to get by it to run in the opposite direction, but if you went downhill or uphill a bit, you could generally squeak by. See, the sidehill toggler could only run one way on a mountainside and it could only run round and round the same pathway because it had a regular sized leg on one side and a very, very short leg on the other. Which was why it was so impossibly speedy on mountain slopes…in one direction.
Even though I was little, something in the glint in my uncle’s eyes and the way my cousin bit her lower lip made me skeptical. I was made even more skeptical when I asked what it looked like. They hemmed and hawed, but eventually agreed it was a giant flightless bird, bigger than an ostrich—like maybe a cousin of an ostrich or something, only this bird had a gigantic curved and sharp beak that could tear a person limb from limb.
My mom liked nature shows and watched them all the time, I said. I thought for sure something as terrible and strange as this bird would have popped up on one. But no, my uncle said, the government didn’t like people talking about it because it could cause a panic or something and so the sidehill toggler was confined to the remotest mountains in special nature preserves where no one was allowed to go. Lumberjacks were the only ones who ever saw them, and brought the tales home to tell around firesides.
Mom got back from the store at this point and told my uncle and my cousin to stop filling my head with trash. They laughed a lot at that point.
“I knew you were lying,” I told them.
“Not lying,” my Uncle Rupert said. “Storytelling.”
“Well, Francie was lying,” I said. She blushed.
But it turns out that the sidehill toggler is a real thing. Okay, not a real real thing, but not just a story my uncle and cousin made up. It’s a folklore thing. A tall tale thing. One of the things that lumberjacks really did like to tell stories about around firesides. The most common name for this creature is the sidehill gouger, but it has dozens of names, including the rickaboo racker, the sidehill winder, the gyascutus, the sidehill badger, the rackabore, and so on and so on. My uncle and my cousin may have made up the part about it being a giant bird because I haven’t found any other accounts of it looking like that. Although storytellers do disagree about its appearance, sidehill gougers are often described as badger-like, or deer-like (only with sharp teeth and carnivorous tendencies). Apparently, it’s not just Americans who encounter these extraordinary creatures: the French have one called a dahut, and the Scots have a sidehill haggis. Which calls up pictures of a giant stuffed carnivorous sheep’s bladder with legs. But maybe that’s just me.
Folklorist Carol Rose in Giants, Monsters, and Dragons: An Encyclopedia of Folklore, Legend, and Myth says of the Guyascutus and its ilk that they are part of:
the folklore of lumberjacks and forest workers (and later fraudsters) during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, especially in Wisconsin and Minnesota in the United States….The creature belongs to a group of monsters affectionately known as the Fearsome Critters, whose exaggerated proportions and activities not only explained the weird noises of the lonely landscape but also provided some amusement at camps.
I hear they have mosquitoes the size of cows out in Wisconsin and Minnesota, too. Or maybe there’s just so many of them in the summertime it feels like you’ve been bitten by a blood-sucking cow or two. Pretty fearsome either way.